A 200-year-old "golden Koran", which contains pages layered in gold, will be displayed at Auckland's central library next month after some Arabic manuscripts that came with it were translated for the first time.
The handwritten Koran was one of the items donated to the library early in the 20th century by Auckland bibliophile Henry Shaw, who died in 1928.
After decades of not knowing what, where or under what circumstances the manuscripts were compiled, the head of Islamic studies at the University of Auckland, Zain Ali, was asked to translate them as part of the Sir George Grey special collections researcher in residence scheme.
The earliest Muslims mentioned in the Census were two 'Mussulmans" in 1855 and four "Muhammadans" listed in 1861. The main source of Muslims in New Zealand before 1950 was India, which is where the rare Koran is believed to have originated.
Dr Ali said it was significant for the Koran to be in New Zealand and for the manuscripts, which are also about 200 years old, to be translated into English. Believed to be the only one of its kind, the Islamic holy book is bound in lacquered papier-mache covers that are painted on both sides with floral patterns.
Its sacred texts are inscribed in black ink on gold background within blue and gold borders, its first two pages and the last two pages are layered in gold.
"This Koranis a work of art, one I believe that is specially commissioned by someone wealthy and could have been a prized possession of a Muslim family," Dr Ali said. "The manuscripts are poems about the Prophet Muhammad which were meant to be read out at an occasion to honour the Prophet."
Dr Ali enlisted the help of his students and it took them two days to uncover the manuscripts which had "layers of meanings".
On one of the preliminary pages, the late Mr Shaw had pasted a note from a bookseller's catalogue, dating the manuscripts to about AH1230 in the Islamic calendar. This translated to 1817 in the Gregorian calendar, which was a turbulent year in Indian history, according to Auckland library notes.
Manuscripts collections librarian Kate de Courcy said the translations were made so that the works could be better appreciated.
"We understand that the reason why the donor had the manuscripts were aesthetic rather than linguistic," Ms de Courcy said. "Having the manuscripts translated will help those who are interested in our rare book collection appreciate them better."
The full translations will be revealed at a May 28 public seminar, led by Dr Ali, to be held at the central library. The golden Koran and the manuscripts will be displayed for two weeks in the special collections reading room after the seminar along with two other rare Korans.